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Growing Urbanization Chewing Away Forests in Southern Africa

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Photo: In Harare, the Zimbabwean capital’s medium density suburb called Glaudina west of the city, where a thick forest used to exist about a decade ago, under construction, hordes of homes are emerging instead as trees have vanished. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo | IDN

By Jeffrey Moyo

HARARE, Zimbabwe (IDN) — In Harare, the Zimbabwean capital’s medium-density suburb known as Glaudina, where a thick forest used to exist, homes under construction have emerged instead, with the trees vanishing.

North-West of Zimbabwe, just outside Lusaka, the Zambian capital, slums and shacks have also, over the decades, replaced the once flourishing forests.

According to the UN-Habitat, in the absence of sufficient public low-cost housing in Zambia, urban growth has resulted in a series of housing crises and the growth of unauthorized settlements at the urban periphery. (P25) JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | SWAHILI

That has not spared Zambia’s urban trees, according to environmental activists.

“Population in towns is increasing as people abandon their villages to find better economic opportunities, cutting down the few remaining urban trees, setting up slums for accommodation,” an independent environmental activist, Nomsa Mulenga in Zambia, told IDN.

Such Zambians who have shown no mercy towards city trees are many like 56-year-old Pauline Chanda, a widow with six children.

Chanda said she lives on a piece of land from which she and her children destroyed trees that were there before they came to the city two decades ago.

“We had to start by removing the trees in order to establish a home,” Chanda told IDN.

Every year, between 250,000 to 300,000 hectares of forests are lost in Zambia amidst growing deforestation, according to the country’s Ministry of Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.

Last year, Zambia lost 201,000 hectares of tree cover, corresponding to 78.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions, according to the Global Forest Watch (GFW).

GFW is an online platform providing data and tools for monitoring forests by harnessing cutting-edge technology, allowing anyone to access near real-time information about where and how forests are changing around the world.

According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in 2020, a non-governmental scientific organisation, about 90 per cent of Zambia’s households solely depend on wood fuel as many households remain unconnected to electricity.

In Mozambique, it is the same story as the growing urbanization chews away forests, with people scrambling for urban land spaces often to illegally erect their own dwellings as they flee from mounting economic hardships in remote areas.

In both urban and rural areas, Mozambique used to be rich in forests, but not anymore, with its forests gradually facing extinction.

Last year, the coastal country lost 278,000 hectares of natural forests, an equivalent of 109 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

Malawi, located north of Zimbabwe, has not been spared either as the growing effects of deforestation have hit the country’s towns and cities.

“In many urban areas here in Malawi, the growing demand of wood fuel has actuated the growth of deforested rings in towns up to 100-kilometre range,” Nicholas Kasongo, an independent environmental expert in Lilongwe, the Malawian capital, told IDN in a phone interview.

With a population of about 20 million, 12 per cent of whom live in towns and cities, last year alone, the government of Malawi reported that the country lost 14.7kha of natural forests, equivalent to 5.30 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

Development experts in Malawi have blamed the increasing rural-to-urban migration for the deforestation that has hit its towns and cities.

“There is growing pressure on services offered in towns as more people choose to migrate to towns, and as a result, many apparently use firewood because their dwellings have no connection to electricity,” Azibo Bwerani, an independent development expert in Malawi, told IDN.

In Zimbabwe, as many rural-to-urban migrants hack trees to build their temporary dwellings while they search for economic opportunities, environmental defenders say these have threatened the existence of forests.

But such rural-to-urban migrants like 46-year-old Trynos Gava in Dema, a peri-urban area outside Chitungwiza, a town 25 kilometres south-east of Harare, have no regrets whatsoever even as many like him have caused the disappearance of hundreds of trees after settling in the area.

“We want to earn a living. We want to farm, plus we also want to sell firewood to nearby Chitungwiza town, where people have power cuts every day. I couldn’t get a job after relocating to this place when I came from my rural home 12 years ago,” Gava told IDN.

As growing urbanization takes down forests across Southern Africa, ecologists like Neliswa Chombe in Zimbabwe say the region’s natural ecosystem has also come under threat.

She (Chombe) said, “people coming to the cities and towns are setting up shacks to live in, just anyhow, and they are destroying trees, meaning even the natural ecosystem is being disturbed”.

According to Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission, this country loses 262,000 hectares of forests annually.

These have included trees vanishing at the hands of rural-to-urban migrants like Gava in this country, desperate to have a roof above their heads while battling to earn a living selling firewood in towns.

But Zimbabwe’s big cities like Harare have also suffered from swift deterioration of its greenbelt, according to environmental activists.

This, said Liberty Museyamwa, a Harare-based environmental defender, can be explained by the capture of green spaces such as parks, paving the way for housing and industrial areas, this with zero afforestation plans in place.

With the population rising in cities and towns in southern African countries like Zimbabwe, according to the United Nations, the global percentage of people living in urban areas is expected to increase to nearly 70 per cent by the year 2050.

Museyamwa said this is bound to fuel urban deforestation.

In fact, he said, “forests are being destroyed massively as even in towns, land developers clear land for construction, with wood poachers making money from the fallen trees”.

Currently, wood fuel accounts for over 60 per cent of Zimbabwe’s total energy supply.

According to the Forestry Commission, up to 11 million tonnes of firewood are needed for domestic cooking, heating and tobacco curing every year in Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, forests are covering about 45 per cent of Zimbabwe’s total land area. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 November 2022]

Photo: In Harare, the Zimbabwean capital’s medium-density suburb called Glaudina, west of the city, where a thick forest used to exist about a decade ago, is under construction, hordes of homes are emerging instead as trees have vanished. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo | IDN

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